As always, I own everything.

/~/

"Tch, find me when you out of this place. Usual spot. No holding back this time, dead-last."

He wasn't kidding, was he? Naruto thought, spinning out of the way of a hail of kunai. His right hand found a brace of shuriken within his weapons pouch that he quickly hurled at his foe. The raven-haired Uchiha refused to be moved, parrying the four shuriken with a drawn kunai easily before chucking it towards the blond. Naruto caught the blade before it could pierce his chest and parried Sasuke's shunshin aided stab a moment later.

Idiot, Sasuke doesn't joke, he chided himself. He circulated his chakra to speed his muscles momentarily and slipped inside Sasuke's guard, leaving a neat slice through the side of his friend's shirt before he managed to dodge the worst of the slash. Naruto's eyes flickered down to the still unmarred throwing knife – clean. He reigned in a smile despite the lack of blood. I'm faster than he can react to, he concluded.

Given the scowl on Sasuke's face, deeper than his usual dour expression, he had reached the same conclusion.

"Well then…" Naruto breathed. A moment later, shunshin carried him forward in a textbook low kick to sweep his friend's legs – but the Uchiha had leapt over it. Only faster in close range, the blond mused as he dashed out of the kill zone in time to avoid an explosive tag-laden kunai.

The tag detonated with a BOOM that filled the clearing with smoke and falling earth, immediately obscuring Naruto's vision. Crafty bastard. Four seals later – Boar – Ram – Ox – Snake – he dropped underground. The Sharingan, being able to see chakra, was uninhibited by smoke and debris; he'd have been a sitting duck waiting for Sasuke to pounce on him above ground.

It was, of course, possible that his friend could pick up the minor fluctuations of chakra that would result from Naruto using any jutsu below ground, but he was willing to take that chance in the short-term. The only other way to flush him out would be to pepper the entire training ground with enough explosive tags to kick up enough earth to expose him. It had become a favorite tactic of Konoha ninja back during the Third Great Shinobi World War. It also usually left the unfortunate souls below ground in less than wholesome condition.

While he doubted that Sasuke would take their spar to such great lengths…Probably shouldn't give him time to think about it, Naruto concluded. He formed a snake seal with his eyes closed in concentration, taking note of how deliberately he had to move whilst underground – Need to work on that – and focused his chakra. The sandy grains that he had changed the hard earth into multiplied outwards, making space around him. He formed a cross-shaped seal a moment later and three Kage Bunshin formed in the newly created space underground.

The blond smirked at his small success even as the first clone exploded upwards into the training ground. It didn't make it more than two steps before a thrown kunai split its jugular. To the right! The two other clones burst from the earth a second after, immediately blurring away in twin body flickers before Sasuke could attack.

Memories of a hand seals formed and a kick to the chest caused his eyes to widen. He pushed himself to the surface, speeding through hand seals of his own as the memories of his last clone forced themselves into his head. Snake – Ram – Monkey – Boar – Horse – Tiger.

Katon: Gokakyuu no jutsu!

His great fireball formed in time to counter Sasuke's own that was racing towards the earth he had been buried in. He disconnected his chakra from the jutsu, eyes squinting against the heat. Naruto palmed a kunai with a swipe at his weapons pouch and sheathed it in wind chakra before hurling it through the battling fireballs.

Sasuke strafed into his periphery a moment later, fingers to his lips. A volley of fireballs the size of Naruto's face burst from the Uchiha's lips in quick succession, forcing Naruto to his right. Blue eyes widened slightly as the first fireball impacted the ground where he had stood, but the next three followed him as surely as if directed by ninja wire. He leapt back to avoid the second, spying Sasuke across the clearing, face contorted in concentration. I'm being forced somewhere

The final two fireballs were dodged with a roll to his left, and his senses told him his back was now only a foot from a tree trunk and left flank was blocked by a rock outcropping. Only one way out annnnd, "Alrighty then," he murmured as Sasuke sprung his trap, a Katon: Ryuuka no jutsu closing the distance between them at speed.

Naruto's lips twitched at the well-crafted trap. Well played, Sasuke, he thought, his chakra latching onto the kunai he had thrown through the great fireballs to flush his friend out. He grit his teeth as the kawarimi placed him clear on the other side of the small training ground, excess chakra slamming back into his coils. "Fuuuck that hurts," he groused, shaking himself.

Not sparing a moment more, he burst forward in a body flicker towards Sasuke, who was moving hastily to cover the one avenue of escape he had left open. The Uchiha turned just before Naruto made contact, his senses no doubt alerting him to the incoming blond, but he was too late to block Naruto's taijutsu.

The blond caught Sasuke with an elbow to the chest that sent the boy reeling. He caught the Uchiha's hasty counterpunch, took the opportunity to pull himself further inside his guard, and jammed an uppercut palm strike to Sasuke's chin. Naruto gripped Sasuke's arm like a vice even as his friend tried to stagger back, planted himself using chakra, and torqued the Uchiha into a throw that sent him to the ground hard enough to make a shallow crater.

Naruto let out a heavy breath, taking two steps back from his prone sparring partner. "That Katon combo was some tricky shit," he said, looking down at Sasuke. He blinked, a foreign chakra tingling on the fringes of his awareness –

And barely had time to cross his arms in front of his face as an explosion of foul chakra sent him careening through the air. He hit the ground ten feet back and rolled backwards onto his feet, knuckle knives spinning their way to his hands out of reflex.

Sasuke stood in the tiny crater he had occupied a moment before, inky black flames covering the right half of his face. Waves of purple chakra were bleeding off of him into the air, tinging it with a feeling of wrongness that made Naruto's lip curl inadvertently. The Uchiha gritted his teeth, seemingly in pain, Sharingan spinning rapidly, and the flames slowly began to recede.

Naruto watched, half fascinated-half terrified, as his friend forced the foul chakra back from wherever it had come from. Thirty seconds that felt like an eternity later, Sasuke staggered forward a step before catching himself. The blond kept his distance.

"What the fuck was that?" Naruto exclaimed, knives still in hand despite the lack of foreign chakra tainting the air.

Sasuke barked a laugh. "Power," he said.

Oh is that what it was? "Ya know I managed to get there myself, believe it or not. Mind sharing a few details, teme?"

He had expected some combination of Sasuke's usual aloofness about himself – a sneer and a put down, a scowl and a put down, maybe a straight-faced put down – not the calculated gaze that settled upon him. "Possibly. You never mentioned what he was doing looking for you that day…"

Ah…a trade. "How'd you find out he was looking for me?" Naruto asked. He wouldn't play dumb, not with Sasuke; not about Itachi.

The fact that Itachi had singled him out the night of the massacre remained his secret, though perhaps not for much longer.

"He came here first," Sasuke said darkly. Naruto nodded. He knew that much from Tsunade, who had been forced to heal Hatake Kakashi immediately upon her return to Konoha – Itachi had apparently done a number on the elite shinobi. "I overheard one of the jonin talking about it. He said that you were his target."

The blond sighed, dropping to the ground and sitting cross-legged. "I told you years ago that I had people that I needed to be stronger than."

"I believed you," Sasuke stated, arms crossed.

How'd this turn into an interrogation? Naruto wondered. "Well, he's one of them…" he trailed off, struggling not to quail under Sasuke's piercing gaze that all but said, "Figured that out, dobe."

"Fucking hell, patience isn't your strong suit is it?" Naruto groused, tossing his friend a weak glare. Sasuke was, unsurprisingly, unmoved. "He's one of them, same with that shark-looking guy he was with. They're called Akatsuki."

"Why?"

Naruto paused, locking eyes with his friend and barely withheld a flinch at the raw fury that glared back at him.

Breaking the staring contest, Naruto weighed his options for a moment. Fuck it. Ino and Kiba know too. "I was born the day the Kyuubi attacked," he began. "Turns out there's no way to kill a biju, so the Yondaime sealed it. In me."

"Itachi wants the Kyuubi?" Sasuke pressed, the manic look fading to slightly less crazed appraisal.

Distantly, Naruto marveled at the single-mindedness one had to have to completely brush aside the fact that your friend had a massive, primeval chakra monster sealed inside of him. "He doesn't," he said. "Uchiha Madara does. He's –"

"The Uchiha Clan Patriarch," the raven haired chunin finished for him without missing a beat. "He's dead."

"Apparently not…according to Itachi at least."

Onyx eyes narrowed in apparent confusion before, uncharacteristically, Sasuke began to pace. Naruto held his silence, letting his friend work through whatever mental gymnastics were undoubtedly taking place. "Why would he tell you that?" he all but whispered.

"Madara wants to control all of the nine biju in order to –"

"Madara is dead. His ashes are in the first urn in the Uchiha Clan crypt, next to his brother Izuna's," Sasuke declared.

Naruto's brow furrowed. "So what're you saying?"

The only way Sasuke's gaze could've been more intense was if his Sharingan was activated. "Itachi is the best liar I've ever met. Everything he does and says is for a purpose. Everything. He's manipulating you."

To what end, though? In the years since Itachi's first declaration of Akatsuki's goals, Naruto had often wondered at the missing-nin's motivations. He had, however, trusted in Itachi's words. He had trained, day and night, because how could he not? Ignoring the idea that there were people who wanted him dead had never been an option.

For better or worse, Itachi's words had become gospel in his mind. And the trust Naruto had placed in that first meeting years previous had carried over to their most recent encounter – he hadn't stopped to consider the possibility that Itachi was lying.

And the story itself was, quite frankly, unbelievable. Like Sasuke said, Madara was dead; confirmed so, apparently.

"Even you would've come up with a better lie than that, gaki…"

And yet Jiraiya's words from when Naruto had confided in him rang true in his mind. While it was unbelievable, it was almost just unbelievable enough to be true. Itachi, gifted liar that he surely was, could've come up with something better than what he had told Naruto.

But arguing with Sasuke about his brother's motivations wasn't something Naruto had time for.

"So…what then?" he asked instead.

"It changes nothing. He is mine to kill," the Uchiha declared instantly, turning back to face him fully. The intensity of his gaze faded and a more familiar smirk settled itself on Sasuke's face after a moment. "You're welcome to all the rest."

Naruto couldn't contain a snort. Sasuke will be Sasuke. "Always the generous one, teme."

Should talk to Jiraiya-sensei about this, the blond mused as the two chunin fell into silence. The Sannin had all but brushed off the missing-nin's words from their mission, claiming that it hadn't changed the way they would be going about things. Knowing Jiraiya, he had already digested the information and come to his own conclusions about its likelihood. Probably sent out a few feelers to those spies of his too. The revelation of his sensei's expansive responsibilities had only increased Naruto's confidence in the man. If anyone could prepare him to combat whatever unspeakably strong and esoteric foes he'd find in Akatsuki, it was Jiraiya. The man had power in spades and a network that apparently spanned the continent to tap into.

Speaking of power…

"About that chakra of yours…" Naruto ventured, remembering why the conversation had started in the first place.

Sasuke blinked, looking to have been lost in thought as well. "It happened during the Chunin Exams. Orochimaru gave it to me," he said plainly, as if he wasn't talking about one of Konoha's most infamous traitors. He rolled his right shoulder forward and pulled the high collar of his shirt down, exposing three black, comma-like marks arrayed in a circular formation.

Naruto felt his eyes widen as his stomach dropped to his feet. He's fucking everywhere! "What did he say?"

The Uchiha shrugged. "To use it. That it would help me with him when the time came."

The blond felt the hairs on his arms stand up as a wave of coldness swept over him. I'm not the only one he's after, Naruto realized in a moment of total clarity. One didn't give the gift of power without asking for something in return.

"And you're gonna just go with that?" he asked incredulously.

Sasuke scoffed, favoring Naruto with a glare that conveyed exactly how stupid he considered the blond for even asking. "Of course not, idiot," he said, as if it was just that simple.

Naruto blinked, the unease in his gut calming slightly. "Kakashi knows?"

Mild irritation crossed Sasuke's face. He nodded once. "He placed a containment seal around it."

The unease returned in full-force. Either Kakashi wasn't much of a sealing expert or Orochimaru's mark was that much more powerful because the chakra Naruto had felt coming from his friend had been many things, 'contained' not being one of them. He'd add it to the list of subjects to broach with Jiraiya when he next saw him.

"What was that jutsu you used against the Sand genin?" Sasuke asked, shaking Naruto from his musings.

"Huh? Oh, Rasengan," he said. He gripped his wrist and spun his chakra into what was now a familiar sphere, the sound of hundreds of blades grinding on whetstones filling the training ground.

Naruto looked up to see Sasuke staring at his technique, Sharingan activated. He quelled the spike of resentment at seeing the powerful dojutsu, cutting the flow of his chakra after a few moments.

"Hn. You've gotten better," Sasuke said as the jutsu dissipated, red eyes fading to onyx.

"Always the tone of surprise," Naruto quipped with a half-smile.

It was the Uchiha's turn to snort. "You were never as useless as the rest of the losers from our class. Not that that's saying anything."

"You really know how to make a guy feel good about himself, ya know that? Who was the one on the ground a few minutes ago, hmm?"

A dark look passed over Sasuke at the reminder of his defeat in their spar, his lip curling in disgust. Naruto barked a laugh. "Don't look so cheery, bastard. I've beaten you before." Their spars in their younger days had usually been fairly even, though Sasuke had certainly gotten the better of him more times than not.

"I don't care about you, dobe," Sasuke practically snarled, causing Naruto to start. "He's still out there and he's not waiting around for me to get strong enough to kill him."

Ain't that the truth. "Takes time, man" Naruto said quietly, recalling what Jiraiya had said to him after Itachi had shown him the limits of his ability in stark detail. Even so…

"What time?" his friend asked on cue, unknowingly echoing Naruto's sentiments from Shukuba town. "Whatever time I have is being wasted drilling with Nara and Haruno while Kakashi recovers."

Distantly, Naruto wondered at his own fortune at having landed Jiraiya as a sensei. The man didn't give a damn about protocol – Understatement of the year there – and was more than happy to abscond with his student whenever the urge to teach struck him. It had happened more often in the days following Tsunade's ascension, the Sannin following through on his promise to take Naruto's training more seriously in light of Akatsuki's movements.

It showed too, given his spar with Sasuke. As far as he was from the level that he needed to be at to weather Akatsuki's storm, he could see how far he had come since Jiraiya had started teaching him back during the Exams. The man preached celebrating the small victories whenever you could, and Naruto was doing his best to adhere to it regardless of the magnitude of Akatsuki's current advantage.

In that light, however, he could see why Sasuke was as visibly frustrated as he was. Though he had never been as viscerally effected by losing to Naruto before. Itachi really fucked him up, the blond thought, containing a chuckle at the massive understatement.

He had always known Itachi had owned the majority of the real estate in Sasuke's head; he just hadn't realized how serious the damage was. He killed his whole family, you fucking idiot, he chided himself, tendrils of worry for his friend's wellbeing creeping in.

"What was that technique you used back in Shukuba town?" he asked suddenly. Naruto had no desire to bring Itachi further into the conversation than he already was, but Sasuke had been using a flashy new jutsu that the blond had never seen before. That, and getting the Uchiha to talk about jutsu specifically was usually a good way to calm him down.

"Hn. Chidori," Sasuke said dismissively.

"Kakashi's original technique?" Naruto asked, curious in spite of his friend's attitude. He had heard of the Copy-nin's single, well-known original technique, but didn't realize he had taught it to Sasuke. "Mind showing me?"

Sasuke sent him a withering look before smirking. "Know a superior jutsu when you see it, hmm? I wasn't going to bring it up, but since you asked…" It took a moment for Naruto to process the slight against the Rasengan, and by then Sasuke had risen to his feet.

Three seals later, the sound of a thousand chirping birds damn near deafened him. It's definitely louder! he thought with a wince. White lightning crackled and sparked around Sasuke's outstretched palm, the occasional bolt arcing in Naruto's general direction, forcing the blond to scoot back.

Without prompting, Sasuke broke left in a body flicker that Naruto couldn't follow, reappearing with a crash as he thrust his outstretched arm into and through a tree trunk. The lightning natured chakra crackled for a few more seconds before the Uchiha ended the jutsu, strolling back to the still seated blond with a grin.

"A-ranked?" Naruto asked, doing his best to sound unaffected, surveying the hole blown into the tree from afar. For suuuuure don't wanna get hit with that.

"Hn."

The blond chuckled lowly. "Gets the job done alright. Training can't be all bad if he's showing you shit like that."

Sasuke sighed audibly as he dropped back to the ground, folding his legs under him in a single, smooth motion. "It's not when it's just me and Kakashi," he acquiesced, sounding pained. "He's always late and reading his porn, but he knows what he's doing."

"It's never just you and Kakashi, then."

The raven haired chunin nodded. "It's just not fast enough. Not fast enough for me, not fast enough to kill him…" he trailed off, right hand rising to absently massage his right shoulder.

The mark, Naruto realized. He contained a shiver as goosebumps broke across his arms and neck once more, watching his friend lapse into thoughts that undoubtedly contained nothing but death.

/~/

"Are you paying attention?"

Blue eyes blinked rapidly, shifting from staring out at the horizon over the top of Konoha's bustling business district to his companion. "What?" he asked before mentally berating himself.

A hand suddenly snaked around the back of his head, grabbed a firm hold, and pulled him forward. Stunned as Naruto was, it took him a moment to react as Ino mashed their lips together. He closed his eyes instinctively, reaching out to draw her closer but she pulled back before he could. His eyes popped open in surprise as Ino bit his bottom lip and held it between her teeth, not unpleasantly, before finally pulling away.

"Are you paying attention now?" she asked, looking far too pleased with herself in Naruto's opinion.

"Eh, think I might need a bit more help focusing," he said, swelling lips breaking into a smirk.

Ino rolled her eyes, playfully swatting his shoulder. "Well we'll have plenty of time for that later if you'd just listen…" she trailed off, raising a single eyebrow at him.

"You have my undivided attention."

"Boys," she huffed in what was undoubtedly supposed to be an exasperated tone. Her small smile belied her irritation, however. "What's she like?"

Naruto shook himself briefly. "What's who like?" he asked.

"Tsunade," Ino stated in a tone that almost made Naruto roll his eyes. She knows I wasn't paying attention earlier… "You were on the mission that brought her back, so you must've talked with her at some point."

"Oh…yeah," he said, all eloquence. "Kind of a bitch to be honest. Drinks a lot, gambles a lot. Really strong though. Smart as shit too," he said, withholding a shiver as he remembered her stare that had so easily pinned him in place.

Ino was staring at him with narrowed eyes. "Of course she's strong, dumbass. She's the Hokage now. What's she like though?" she pressed. "Like, what makes her tick? Why is she so strong?"

Naruto blinked, cocking his head to the side. "Why the sudden interest?" he queried.

His companion shifted slightly next to him. "You remember that talk we had before the Chunin Exams?"

Ah. "I gotcha," he said quickly, recalling her insecurities about becoming a strong kunoichi coupled with the lack of support her parents were giving her. He exhaled heavily, calling up his memories of Tsunade from the mission and after. "Talent, obviously, but it's more than that. Having old man Sandaime as a sensei couldn't've hurt either. From what I could tell, she just seems really…focused," he finished, rather lamely in his own opinion.

Pinpointing what made a person strong wasn't all that easy, apparently.

Now that he thought about it, pretty much every strong shinobi he had met recently could be described, in some way, shape, or form, as being intensely focused. Orochimaru certainly was; Jiraiya as well. And apparently his father had been too.

"Focused," Ino repeated slowly, incredulity marring her face. Naruto reached up and scratched the back of his head bashfully. She scoffed, "Some help you are."

"What, did you expect me to write you an essay? I've known the woman for like three weeks!" the blond chunin said defensively.

"I expected – oh I don't know – some actual insight. Aren't chunin supposed to be critical thinkers?" she huffed.

Naruto rolled his eyes, knowing better than to take Ino too seriously. At the same time, the prickling of unease that nagged him relentlessly whenever S-ranked ninja were discussed tickled the back of his neck. Being able to get a good read on such shinobi was tremendously important; high level fights were more often than not decided within the first moments, advantages and disadvantages catalogued and exploited almost immediately.

Ino's fingers snapped in front of his face. "You're doing it again."

The blond shook himself. "Doing what?" he asked. Ino shook her head.

"Zoning out. You're here but you're not," she said, and as much as he couldn't get a read on S-ranked shinobi, the disappointed and hurt undercurrent in his girlfriend's voice was unmistakable.

"I'm sorry," he said immediately. "I'm just…"

"Focused," Ino said with a bitter smile. "I get it, Naruto. It's just not always fun watching from right next to you…"

Naruto couldn't help the pang of guilt that coursed through him, even as it was quickly overshadowed by the oh-so-familiar specter of Akatsuki. He opened his mouth but closed it a moment later.

How did one explain that his life depended on his focus? That every break, necessary as they were, filled him with anxiety.

Slim arms wrapped around him as Ino leant into him, resting her head on his shoulder. "I'm just worried about you, ya know?" she said quietly. "You're always someplace else."

"You don't have to worry about me, Ino-chan," he said quickly. She only snorted.

"I can't help it, you idiot. You're my boyfriend; you're my best friend." She tilted her head up at him from his shoulder. "You barely smile anymore. Ever since you got back from getting Tsunade-sama. I just wish you slowed down, ya know? There's more to life than just being stronger than the rest of us."

Even as he felt heat creep up the back of his neck at Ino's words, even as he peeled his lips back to favor his girlfriend with a wide grin before dropping a kiss on her forehead, he couldn't help the thought that rattled through his brain like a siren:

Not for me.

/~/

"Chunin Uzumaki."

Naruto shifted his eyes from his father's face on the Hokage monument to the ANBU who had just appeared at his side calmly. The message – delivered by messenger hawk to his apartment an hour before – had said he was expected at the administrative building.

"ANBU-san," he returned levelly, appraising the masked shinobi. He hadn't sensed the man until he had appeared, but he wasn't about to let that on. "I assume you're gonna tell me where I'm supposed to go…" The blond barely had time to hold the vague written message out before it was swiftly removed from him in a blur of grey cloth. Impatient much? he thought with a frown.

"Follow," was all he got in response as the ANBU turned on his heel and strode in the direction of the Hokage's mansion.

"Are all you ANBU this uptight?" he asked under his breath, not caring if his escort heard. The team that had bailed him out back during the invasion had been clipped and hurried, but he had thought that simply a matter of the situation at hand – he certainly hadn't cared in the moment.

Unsurprisingly, the masked man held his silence as the duo walked in a side entrance.

The ANBU led him up three flights of winding stairs that Naruto hadn't even known existed. They were entirely unmarked, unlike the main stairway that led to the Hokage's office through the front entrance, and blond eyebrows made a steady climb skyward as they passed no one the entire way. Where are the shinobi?

They exited on an unmarked floor and predictably walked to a door that was similarly bare. The masked man knocked on the door once and disappeared in a puff of smoke before "Enter," was stated clearly from the other side.

"Well…this can only end well," Naruto murmured as he opened the door to a well-lit room that held three occupants. They sat around a plain, rectangular table that had a thick file folder upon it and faced him expectantly when he entered. He shut the door behind him quietly.

There were no windows. He felt his heartrate pick up slightly as he recognized the bandaged head of the man who had given him the mission to kill the Ichibi – Danzo.

"Uzumaki Naruto," Danzo said. "This is Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura, the late Hokage's advisors."

"And where's the current Hokage?" the blond heard himself speak out of reflex.

"Currently meeting with the clan heads," the woman named Koharu responded without missing a beat. Naruto blinked, surveying the three elders whose faces might as well have been carved from granite. "Please sit, Uzumaki-san," she said, gesturing to the single unoccupied chair that was opposite them.

He dropped himself into the not-particularly-comfortable chair as Homura declared, "You're nervous."

I'm not not nervous. "Yeah," Naruto confirmed, not bothering to try to hide his emotions – for all the little good it would've done in this room. Between Ino's probing and Sasuke's jumpiness the last few days, he wasn't in the mood to beat around the bush. "What's this about?"

Danzo, sitting in the middle of the trio, pushed the file folder toward him. "Orochimaru made you an offer of allegiance before the preliminary round of the Chunin Exams. You encountered him once more on your most recent mission, where he revealed classified information to you regarding October the tenth thirteen years ago."

"You read my debriefs," Naruto confirmed. Glancing down, his eyes narrowed at seeing the Snake Sannin's name printed on the top of the file folder. He felt his hackles rise much as they had in his discussion with Sarutobi and the examiners before the preliminaries. "I went over this with the Sandaime. I'm not about to defect," he bit out.

Danzo's lips twitched. "That's very good to hear. One could, however, argue that you have as much cause as any to be…displeased with Konoha."

"You can understand our reticence, I'm sure. Your youth was marked with multiple altercations with villagers," Homura continued. "Your academy instructors slighted you consistently, whether in their instruction or in their reviews. You have been subjected to the fickle whims of–"

Naruto stood abruptly, expression thunderous, cutting the elder off. "You read my debriefs and the Sandaime's notes," he bit out through clenched teeth. "If those aren't good enough for you, go ask Jiraiya and the Hokage what they think. I didn't come all the way here to listen to a bunch of retired has-beens question my loyalty."

"Calm yourself, Uzumaki," Danzo cut in. "Despite appearances to the contrary, your loyalty is not under scrutiny. Your motivations very much are, though."

Naruto glared at the bandaged man. "And that's different how?"

Koharu spoke up, "You've performed admirably in all situations into which you've been thrust. The Sandaime considered you an exceptional talent, a notion the Godaime agrees with. All that said, the motivations for why you have become so exceptional remain a mystery."

"Was there a question in there somewhere?" the blond asked snidely. Get to the fucking point.

"We know you're loyal. The question is why you are loyal to Konoha?" Danzo asked, voice reverberating around the small room.

Naruto paused. It was a question he hadn't given much consideration to before. It was all he'd ever known, for sure, but he expected such an answer wasn't what these three were looking for. "It's my home," he said quietly, but truthfully. Regardless of his relationship with the unendingly fickle populace, Konoha was home. "My…" My what? Family? "My people are here," he finally said.

Outwardly, his declaration – unsure that it was – had no visible effect on the three elders. They sat silently, observing Naruto's still standing form as the blond fought the urge to fidget under their collective scrutiny.

"Do you know what has made Konoha the greatest of all the hidden villages, Uzumaki?" Danzo asked. Naruto quirked an eyebrow and said nothing. "At its core, Konoha is no different than any other hidden village. Minus a few standouts, our shinobi are no more exceptional than Kumo's or Kiri's. Regardless of what you may have been told, we are no smarter than Iwa, nor are we tougher than Suna. On the whole, we are all the same."

"What separates us, then, is how we handle adversity," Danzo continued. "Since the day the Senju and Uchiha came together to form this village, the others have perceived us as the strongest. We had the strongest clans at the outset, and thus the strongest village. Our world is predicated on power and reputation, and so the others have either sought to ally with us or, more frequently, destroy us."

"Each and every Hokage has fought against immeasurable odds, often times pulling the village from the brink of destruction by force of will alone." Danzo leaned back in his chair. "You are, undoubtedly, aware of this fact. Your very existence is a testament to Namikaze Minato's dedication to Konoha." Naruto fought to keep a glare from rematerializing on his face at the mention of his father. "It is the sacrifice of each and every Hokage, along with the sacrifice of countless Konoha shinobi that has allowed this village to stand the test of time."

"More often than not, that sacrifice is acknowledged by the general populace, shinobi and civilian alike, and then forgotten, replaced by contented complacency," the elder stated calmly, but with an unmistakable edge in his voice that belied his true thoughts. "I, along with Koharu and Homura, have dedicated ourselves to not letting those continued sacrifices go to waste. The Hokages, First through Fourth, gave their lives for Konoha. Those sacrifices will not be in vain."

Naruto, only partially taken aback by the vehemence in Danzo's soliloquy, leaned forward against the chair he had stood from. He reigned in his desire to dismiss the man's impromptu history lesson out of spite. "So…"

"Konoha is at a crossroads," Danzo declared, his lone visible eye narrowed – Naruto couldn't tell if it was because of the subject or his impatience. "The Sandaime sacrificed his life to stop Orochimaru, and yet he is still the greatest threat to the village."

"He must be dealt with," Homura stated. He gestured to the folder in front of him. "That is Orochimaru's personnel file. It contains all relevant information on him from his time as a loyal shinobi, as well as what it known about his movements after he defected."

Naruto slid the folder toward himself hesitantly with trembling fingers, the ever-growing sense of foreboding that had gripped him since he had entered the room exploding into barely contained panic. He wasn't so dense as to not be able to put the pieces laid in front of him together. "What do you want from me?" he breathed.

The elders were silent for a moment, the only sound the echoing drum that was Naruto's heartbeat in his ears. "Orochimaru made you an offer of allegiance; your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to accept that offer. The timeframe is three years. You will pass information about Orochimaru's movements to Konoha for the duration of the mission, and at the end of the scheduled time, assassinate him."

The blond leaned back in his chair, entirely sure that the elders could hear the gears spinning frantically in his mind as he processed Danzo's words. He opened his mouth but no sound emanated.

The pieces weren't hard to put together: he was in an unprecedented position to gain access to the Snake Sannin given the man's clear interest in him. And the man's interest, not to mention everyone else's, spoke clearly enough about his potential – regardless of how far he was from achieving it.

"If I choose to accept it?" he finally asked, voice weak.

"All S-class missions outside of wartime are accepted voluntarily, not mandated," Koharu said calmly, as if she wasn't asking him to infiltrate the organization of one of the most dangerous shinobi on the continent.

"Ah…"

"The importance of this mission cannot be overstated, chunin Uzumaki," Homura said. "Our position atop the ranks of the shinobi villages hangs in the balance. Kumo does not yet have the strength to challenge us openly, but their growth coupled with the losses we sustained in the invasion have closed the gap. Open hostilities are a very real possibility in the near future."

"Orochimaru's continued existence is a blight on our reputation, never mind what actions he may take against us in the future," Danzo continued. "Beyond recompense for the invasion, eliminating him will restore our reputation internationally."

Naruto nodded, lips pursed and eyes wide as the elders presented the situation. "Kill an S-ranked criminal, stop a war before it starts, anything else?" he asked. The noticeable squeak in his voice likely dampened the effect of his sarcasm.

"You have forty-eight hours to decide your course of action," Homura said, stone-faced alongside his counterparts.

The blond chunin pushed himself up from his chair, idly making note of the sweaty imprints his palms left on the wooden table. He turned, breathed, and found himself focused intently on putting one foot in front of the other than he had ever been in order to leave the room while his mind whirled.

"Uzumaki," Danzo's voice called. Naruto froze, hand on the doorknob, and turned his head to face the three shinobi who had torn the proverbial rug from under his feet. "It goes without saying, all information discussed is classified S-rank."

Above top-secret. Disseminating it was considered treason, punishable by death.

"Understood." The door opened without a sound, and Naruto closed it behind him with a click, stepping uncertainly into the hallway.

/~/

Been looking forward to this since I started this fic years ago. Big things on the way. Thanks to the DLP crew as always.